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The aesthetics of car parks – let’s have some!

Patrick Crozier at Transport Blog links to a piece about the perennial tendency of all concerned to prefer railways to cars, except where their own personal travelling arrangements are concerned. Cars take you where you want to go. Trains can’t take you to almost any of the places you want to go. Work is spread out in the suburbs. Trains can’t be spread out in the suburbs, because they only stop at stations. If you could jump off trains at any point, the way you can jump off the old London double decker buses with the wide-open back doors whenever they slow down, and if trains did slow down quite often, then trains would be much more convenient things. But you can’t do any of that.

So, people actually use cars. But what they vote for and politick for is trains. People don’t like cars, in the sense of liking their combined effect. They prefer the train system to the car system.

Why? Whence the train fascination? Why does even Transport Blog obsess about trains, when trains are such economically stupid things compared to cars?

Part of the answer is surely aesthetic. Trains go in those lovely elegant curves. Trains don’t get stuck in train jams and produce nothing but fumes for twenty minutes. (They do get stuck from time to time. But mostly they don’t get stuck.) Above all, trains don’t need huge, huge train parks to park in. They just carry on trundling around.

Cars, on the other hand, have turned a substantial percentage of the surface of the earth into a place whose only purpose is to be purposeful. The biggest bridges and the most intricate motorway interchanges have genuine beauty and grandeur. But most car infrastructure is every bit as dull and clunky and messy and uninspiring as the word infrastructure itself is.

In particular, car parks are an almost total aesthetic negative, in most people’s eyes. Car parks pave paradise. The more exciting a building is, the greater the price that seems to have to be paid in meaningless tarmac expanse surrounding it. And which is now uglier: a full car park or an empty car park? You tell me.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Car parks aren’t just ugly; they are aesthetic no-go areas. By this I mean that mostly they are not just ugly, but are places where no attempt is now made to make them look beautiful. It is simply accepted in our culture that whereas it makes sense to try to make an office block or a sports stadium or a appartment building look cool and dandy and the sort of thing that people would want to take photos of, car parks are just incurably awful places, and we just have to put up with them and make them as un-huge as we can.

Well, correction. Trees are often planted in among car parks. But to believe that only trees can beautify a car park is, in a way, to accept the very point I am saying should be challenged. Do we really have to accept that the only way to make tarmac surfaces look good is to punch little holes in it and allow weedy, smoke encrusted and apologetic little plants to peep through (and then shed leaves everywhere)? Cannot a car park, by virtue of its own carparkness, be as beautiful in its own right as a tree?

Car parks could look great, surely.

Anyway, what I would like to see is a serious attempt by architects and designers to make car parks into things of beauty, and a quite deliberate acceptance of the fact, which it surely is, that doing this would amost certainly mean spending extra money.

But so what? There is no law that says that a car park should not be so amazing that people would actually visit it, and pay extra to park in it and to photograph their car in it, and buy picture postcards of it seen from the air the way they do of the Sydney Opera House or St Paul’s Cathedral. In the hands of a great designer, could not a car park be paradise?

For people who are supposed to ‘worship the motorcar’, we sure are crap at building car cathedrals.

Two general suggestions. One: as per Sydney Opera House, think curves. Avoid rectangles. This actually makes driving sense. The sharp right angle turn saves space, of course it does. But it is not fun to drive in sharp turns. Curves make driving sense. And of course curves give you all kinds of chances to make places that look great.

Two: spend money to get away from total flatness. At present, aesthetics tends to forbid turning hills into car parks, because hills are too beautiful thus to ruin, even if a car park carved into a hillside might be a lot nicer. So build slopes and hills and intersecting ramps. Advantage: tourists can take good three-d photos without having to hire helicopters or climb towers. Eventually, places with frankly rather drab looking lumps of earth (hills) would be asking successful car park designers to turn their boring earthly protuberances into groovy car parks.


Questions. First, of course: am I, approximately speaking, on to something? Two: are there already examples in the world of car parks built in the manner I suggest, with the kind of aesthetic and financial exuberance I would like to see? Surely yes. Three: are there any rejected or fantasy car park designs along the lines I suggest? Surely yes again. Pictures and links to pictures appreciated.

36 comments to The aesthetics of car parks – let’s have some!

  • Lovely thought, luv, but you just know they’ll muck it up!!

  • zack mollusc

    Who cares what things look like anyway? Lets sort out all the functional problems before we tart it up with glass panels and crap. When I go to the shops and they don’t have what I want in stock, the prescence or absence of beautifying murals or sculptures escapes me.

    Oh, and trains DO need big train parks. They are called marshalling yards.

  • Julian Morrison

    Even so little as using colored tarmac (such as is used in bike and bus lanes, but more colors obviously) could help. And would be comparatively inexpensive.

  • Who cares what things look like anyway? Lets sort out all the functional problems before we tart it up with glass panels and crap.

    Well I care, actually. It is just as easy to make something look nice and be functional, as it is to just make it functional… it is not a case of ‘either/or’.

    Most things in life are substitutable, so I will often choose what places I visit and which products/services I purchase based on aesthetic considerations.

  • Bill

    People don’t dislike cars as such. I believe what they don’t like is other peoples cars. Hence the votes for trains, which is the single most financially wastefull way to transport people I can think of. In an urban setting, anyway.
    We were sold trains here (Denver), and got trollys. When it was first suggested, under the name “Light Rail”, I had envisioned a line running 300 miles or so from Pueblo CO, to Cheyenne WY, with stops only at the major cities along the way. This could have been commercially viable, but being a government program, what we got was a very expensive bus line that can’t change routes to accomodate changing demographics.
    As to an attractive car park, how about something resembling your “Gerkhin” building. Drive in smooth circles, and park radially. Put the elevator in the center.

  • I think you’re right about cars being seen as junky, and we all know that traffic jams are the inevitable rationing queues you get when allocating an unpriced good [road space].

    I still refuse to own a car. The shapes of our train-frustrating mid-20th-century suburbs were deformed worst of all by the illegal and corrupt actions of cartels like that of Firestone Tires, Standard Oil and General Motors which bought up the good Los Angeles tram/streetcar network in the 1930s, pulled up the rails so as to replace the trams with rubber-tire-using, gasoline-burning buses, and then phased out the buses so as to push people into buying cars, making suburban development only cars could reach the norm. This happened in cities all over the US and Britain. By the time a Federal court decided in the late 1940s that Firestone Tires, Standard Oil, and General Motors had broken the anti-trust laws and fined them, Los Angeles and other cities had been misshapen beyond repair and the cartel had won.

    One key advantage of trains is you can read while travelling [since many travellers can afford to pay less each to one driver] and your vehicle doesn’t have to fight for its place in the queue on the actual track. This is a direct result of having directly booked and paid in advance to use an exclusive space on the track at a certain time instead of always having to try and push your way onto a piece of road surface you didn’t directly book or pay for in advance.

  • Well, Bill, at least they’re trying to fix the problem in Denver. If I’m not mistaken, a rail line is being put in down the Boulder turnpike, and the eventual plan is to have all of the Front Range hooked into the rail system. I personally would support rail lines that go to national parks, such as a line that ran between Sacramento, Yosemite, and LA. But I ramble.

    It is certainly true that parking structures are often staggeringly ugly, as the designers go for bare functionality. I support the idea of beautiful lots, but I can think of no good examples to point designers towards.

  • Kevin Connors

    I think you are very much on to something here, Brian. The problem is one of economics. I’m with Perry and will gladly pay a bit more for an enjoyable shopping experience, and that includes pleasant astetics. I also much prefer parking structures to open lots as I can leave my car in the shade and park closer to the business/residence I am visiting.

    But I think I’m in the minority. As long as there is plenty of cheap land available, suburbanites will flock to big box stores and walk a quarter mile from their cars to save an extra couple of bucks.

  • Kevin Connors

    One structure you might find interesting is Triangle Square in Costa Mesa, California. The shopping mall, rather than being simply beside or atop the parking structure, is integrated in with it.

  • I’d like to see some canopied car parks. There are some lovely high-tech permanent tented structures about. Sarn park shopping centre near Cardiff has an interesting double roofed tent over the kids’ play park. This idea could be extended over the car park.

    In the British climate, a tented roof with open sides rarely provides human beings with the amount of protection from wind and rain that they want. However a canopy to keep extremes of rain and sun off yet with plenty of air coming in at the sides does give the optimum amount of shelter for a car: protection without letting fumes build up.

    While there will be some who, as Kevin Connors says, will shop in a box and walk a quarter of a mile to save two bucks, I am not sure they are a majority. British readers living in reach of the M25 may know Bluewater shopping centre and / or its rival Lakeside. The shops in both are about the same. I am usually willing to pay the two pounds extra for the return toll crossing of the Thames in order to enjoy the palatial interior of Bluewater. Lakeside is now being refurbished so maybe there are many like me.

  • I must point out that there are a ton of soulless, isolated developed communities in the U.S. with lots of trees, winding roads, and hills. They suck because they are strictly zoned in such a way that it’s impossible to send the kid down to the corner store, and there’s nowhere to walk except to other houses. This isn’t how you build communities.

    Hills and curves don’t make for a pleasantly functional way to go about your business.

    I’m all in favor of ways of making car parks nicer. But thinking curvy and hilly is the wrong way to start.

  • I must point out that there are a ton of soulless, isolated developed communities in the U.S. with lots of trees, winding roads, and hills. They suck because they are strictly zoned in such a way that it’s impossible to send the kid down to the corner store, and there’s nowhere to walk except to other houses. This isn’t how you build communities.

    Hills and curves don’t make for a pleasantly functional way to go about your business.

    I’m all in favor of ways of making car parks nicer. But thinking curvy and hilly is the wrong way to start.

  • Let me hasten to emphasize, I like the idea of trying to make parking lots nicer. I really do.

    I’m just emphasizing that form must follow function. That’s the first rule that gets forgotten in too many housing developments in the U.S. and there’s no point in doing the same thing here.

  • Brian here, the originator of this.

    Thanks for all the positive feedback. Even if Zack doesn’t care what things look like, it would seem that plenty of people do, so if Zack owned a car park, even he might find it to his advantage to pretty it up, to attract a few more punters.

    But how?

    Thinking about it some more, I think the idea of trying to undermine (or overlay, overbuild, etc.) the flatness of car parks could be, so to speak, a blind alley, expensive in construction work, and expensive in the inefficiency of the resulting car park.

    I’d guess that one of the reasons pretty buildings are more common than pretty car parks nowadays is that the difference in cost between a pretty building and an ugly one is a dozen or two percentage points, whereas making a car park into an architectural thing of beauty would multiply its construction and use costs many times over.

    So, instead of fighting against the flatness, why not *use* the flatness. Select a really huge flat car park, which has the property that it is often seen from high above, such as a car park at the bottom of a high tower, or a car park at an airport over which planes fly. On this huge flat surface, simply draw a huge picture.

    I urge photos rather than abstract patterns. Half the fun of a lot of graphic recreations of photos is the contrast between how crude the method can be and yet how fabulously pictorial the result. (Think of that amazing picture of the young Queen Elizabeth II done with a typewriter. Never mind if you’ve not seen it, but if you have, isn’t that great?) Or think of the photographic effects that are created in places like Piccadilly Circus with mere arrays of big light bulbs. So make huge photographic recreations. And if the cars park on top of that, well, okay.

    This would be fun to look at from on high, and even quite interesting from close to. (What are these marks mummy?) But above all, it would not cost the earth, the costs that would come from shifting earth in a big way.

    The marks would not have to be that intrusive at the ground level, and need not interrupt, that is, could be overridden by, the necessary road markings to guide drivers to their spots. As I say, half the fun of these huge pictures is how much interference they can take, and still work.

    Also, the idea plays from our our civilisation’s current strengths, which is its expertise in, don’t laugh, paint-making. Think of those huge logos they put on sports pitches. That didn’t use to be doable, did it?

    The idea is a kind of modern rehash of the old English idea of carving huge graphic images into the chalk hillsides. Do it well, and it would be a similar boost to the picture postcard industry.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    I wrote that last, long comment before I’d read what Dean Esmay had said. It chimes in directly with his sentiments, of course.

  • In Natalie’s comment I wasn’t quite sure what the difference was between a tent with open sides and a canopy.

    This is relevant to what I am going to say next because I suspect one of the great problems with car park design is getting rid of the fumes. For the most part the answer is to have partly-open sides. But if you do that then the cars themselves are on show and what a dreadful mess they make with their different makes, colours and sizes.

  • Or of course we could just charge parked-car space and driving-car space accurately.

    Once the century-old subsidy to car users was removed and the real costs of different transport systems clarified and charged, most people would use public transport.

  • zack mollusc

    I was (and am) ranting about the tendency to discuss aesthetics before the practicalities are perfected. In my local Walmartsda the car park has many shrub borders, lights and landscaping. This however is trampled to mud because they forgot that you need to walk from the car to the shop. You also tend to walk miles pushing the trolley from the shop to the car because of the attractive kerbs surrounding the shrubs. These landscape features are at the expense of parking spaces, needless to note.

  • Kevin Connors

    mark just struck on something, while a digression from the main thrust of this thread, is so egregious a misconception propigated by the watermelons that it must be struck down right now:

    Automobiles are not subsidized

    On the contrary, in the US, the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for by motor fuel excise taxes, is regularly raided to support the general fund. In California, as with many other states, the general fund is also enhanced by sales taxes on motor fuels while taxes and use fees on vehicles more than cover the cost of the road system.

    On the other hand, no passinger rail line runs in the black

    The closest thing in the US is the San Diego Trolley, built on the cheap using existing right-of-way and refurbished cars. IIRC, it’s costs run 1.4 times what it collects at the farebox.

  • It’s complicated Kevin, but the subsidies are real, I’m afraid. Check my earlier mention of anti-trust-law violations by US tire, car and gasoline firms which sabotaged public-transit networks in the early years of the 20th century. Same happened elsewhere.

    Taxes on gasoline hugely understate the costs of road transport – this is easily provable. If private road transport was charged accurately, there wouldn’t be any traffic jams. The presence of traffic jams is proof that people are queueing to get a resource priced lower than it should be since pricing and rationing are the two ways scarce goods get allocated in any society.

    As road space is currently allocated by rationing [queuing] this proves it is not being charged at a price which would balance supply and demand. Milton Friedman in the early 60s, I think, has some interesting things to say about road use.

  • Dean Esmay: I’m just emphasizing that form must follow function. That’s the first rule that gets forgotten in too many housing developments in the U.S. and there’s no point in doing the same thing here.

    The phrase ‘form follows function’ is like a red rag to a bull to me as it is loaded with such meaning beyond the obvious truism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Function matters of course but form does not always have to slavishly follow principal utility. Aesthetics is also a ‘function’ in its own right as well as a ‘form’. I see the job of the architect as not being ‘The Truth’ but rather (firstly) ‘do whatever the client wants’ and then ‘make it look pleasing’… and that often means using artful design to lie though your teeth about what the building’s function is actually about.

    If I am building an abattoir (slaughterhouse) the last thing I want is for it to actually look like a slaughterhouse and if it does, I want it to be whimsical: otherwise it depresses the neighbours. If I am making low income housing in Barking, I do not want the language of the design to say ‘housing units for poor-white-trash’ regardless of how true that may be: make the front look like a miniture Buckingham Palace with corgi shaped floor tiles everywhere… I am sure most people would think it was hilarious and so be much less likely to piss in the hallways. Likewise I would love to see parking decks with ceilings like the Cistine Chapel… or anything interesting that elevates me from the dreary and mundane. Death to Bauhaus! Drive a stake through Le Corbusier’s heart!

  • Joe

    The architects do try, but the function of a parking garage can be hard to wrap into a pleasing form.

  • Benito

    I think one problem being ignored here is that even the prettiest car park/parking lot is going to be ugly within a year or so. Why? Leaky vehicles and cracking.

    The stains from oil, antifreeze, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, any of the various liquids that tend to drip out of cars are inevitable. This would particularly mess up the idea of logos or designs in the parking lot. (Not to mention the obvious problem of the design being obscured by cars, during the day when the design would be easiest to see, and difficult to see at night, when the lot is empty but the lack of light becomes a problem.)

    The cracking is pretty bad. Again, I speak only from my experience here in the States, and particularly in the South where extremes of temperature and the invasion of moisture rip up parking lots. (One of the ugliest solutions to this is to fill in the long cracks with a thin tar/asphalt mixture, resulting in long, snaking black lines over the entire parking lot. But it’s a lot cheaper than repaving the whole thing.)

    A freshly paved parking lot with bright new white lines is a beautiful thing, orderly and attractive and neat. But it never stays that way for long. I think that multi-level garages are a great way to go, because you don’t have to deal with the ravages of sun and rain, but at that point you really can’t do much to pretty-up the parking spaces, and all aesthetic improvements must focus on the exterior building–but it still has to be readily apparent that it *is* a parking garage. I’ve seen a few that were cleverly disguised, and thus invisible to someone new to the area.

    Aesthetics aside, what I really like in parking lots is the following: many points of entry/exit, wide lanes between parking spaces, and a minimum of shrubbery/trees that block the view. Even though I drive a small car, I hate having to squeeze into tight parking spaces. Attractiveness be damned; as long as I have enough room, and don’t end up forced into queues with dozens of other drivers because there’s only one way out, then I’m happy.

  • Jacob

    I want to stress a point that has been mentioned in the comments: the commercial value of a pleasant and attractive design. Like Natalie Solent said – people will go an extra mile or pay an extra dollar for something they like. They might even not know why exactely they prefer one place to another, they might be unconcious that it is the esthetics – but it matters a lot. That is why storeowners invest a lot in the design of the store and it’s window – it attracts clients, it makes a huge difference commercially. The problem with the parking lots might be that they are not a separate, income generating bussiness, but a commonly owned or administered asset – the tragedy of the commons ? Anyway, my main point is that esthetics has not only costs, but also value, measured in dollars, and usually the added value is far greater than the cost, as any storeowner or restauranteur know.

    to Mark:
    Roads are congested not because they are subsidized but because the way they are paid for – the structure of the pay system. There is a disconnect between the price you pay for roads (in gasoline taxes) and your ammout of use. Private cars serve in all countries as a milking cow – the state penalizes people for owning cars by making them pay huge taxes. Private cars are overtaxed not subsidized.

  • Patrick, in my ignorance I was using “tent” and “canopy” as meaning much the same thing. I did not have a specific design in mind, just the general thought that I like the look of stretched fabric (well, these days it might be polypropylene or whatever they call it) rather than roof-tiles above me, and that it would be cheaper than a proper building while still keeping the rain off. I was definitely thinking of open sides though.

    You could have banners suspended from the tented roof and fluttering in the wind through the open sides – an advertising opportunity, and aesthetically taking up the theme of the multicoloured cars.

    Gosh, I am really getting into this.

  • zack mollusc

    Perry:-“The phrase ‘form follows function’ is like a red rag to a bull to me as it is loaded with such meaning beyond the obvious truism. Nothing could be further from the truth. ”

    Aesthetics are the icing on the cake, no more. Because we have a relatively easy life we concentrate more on this icing, but when you get right down to it, it is superfluous. Your house is on fire, hmm, those craftsman pewter tankards are nicer than that noisy water pump. I need neurosurgery, gosh, that Mr Clooney is so hunky, maybe he should do it.
    I have nothing against tarting up some design which is as good as it can get already. If it isn’t as good as it can get then there is a waste of effort.
    Put money into engineering not decor. Classic case, the elegent slender wobbly bridge: did the man not wonder why all bridges were not made that way?

  • I responded in longer length on my site, but here’s where all the action is. Until there is the big change so that people will actually look at the parking lot as attraction, property owners and business owners will be reluctant to spend a lot of money on parking areas. In general, people are so intent on maximizing usable space in parking lots because they are overhead, not something that generates revenue. As Jacob says, people will prefer a better one, and an aesthetically pleasing lot may be enough to get people to drive past the most convenient store, but the lot still will probably not ‘pay for itself’.

    The second thing I see standing in the way of a change in parking lot development is the current requirements for parking lots connected with buildings. How often do you ever see parking lots full in suburban areas? Pretty much never, even during holiday shopping seasons. The legal requirements are, in my opinion, excessive. Relaxing them probably wouldn’t move us toward more aesthetic design, but it might at least reduce the paved area.

    To be honest, the best I think that can be done is mostly landscaping around the edges. It is just simply far too costly (compared to current circumstances) to get rid of the rectangular layout of cars in spaces.

    And as far as trains and transit go, I think that most people support trains for everyone else, so that they have more of the road to themselves. Perhaps other places in the world transit can work, but not in the US, outside of places with extremely high population density (like NYC). There’s just too much track that would have to be laid for too few people to use.

  • Kirk Parker


    You’re conflating two completely different things. Sure, congestion happens in part because the pricing to the user does not reflect the cost. But what does this have to due with subsidized cost? Not sure where you’re from, but here in the USA (as the previous poster mentioned, in regard to California) it’s quite common for road development to be funded by the gas tax. At least in Washington State where I live, there is definitely a flow of dollars fromgas taxes collected to non-roadway related projects, and not vice versa.

  • Monsyne Dragon

    Hmm… I can think of at least one fairly aestetic car park

    Marina City
    in Chicago. The car parks are integrated into the skyscraper towers (the first 10-15 floors or so) and have wonderful views of the river.

  • Another pleasing car park was in the first episode of Captain Scarlett and the Mysterons. Totally nonsensical but pleasing to the eye.

    Force all architects to build like Gerry Andersen.

  • Devilbunny

    Dean, a little something for you:

    I never considered this before a few weeks ago, but there was an essay (oh, somewhere on the Net, and I’m quite sure I’ll not find it if I look) that held out the premise that the reason that suburbia was bland, soulless, and disconnected from other portions of itself is that it is supposed to be.

    Why do people move to the suburbs? To have children. They do it to have a quiet place with room to play – no nearby commercial areas, as those would be too busy; no nightlife, as you don’t want those people hanging around your kids or vice versa. (Just remember the uproar when Giuliani cleaned out Times Square; eliminating hookers and junkies was condemned as “taking away the characteristic local flavor” and such.)

    I don’t really think parking lots can be generally attractive. They can be hidden in the structure of a building, they can be put underground; the garages can be cunningly decorated. Mostly, though, they will be flat pieces of paved ground, for economy.

    I can answer why so many suburban parking lots are so much larger than is ever used: they want to leave open the potential for development along the road frontage, so they just pave the whole thing when they build it. Very few of these fronting structures are actually built, but the idea is there.

  • I can’t find a picture of it, but the car-park directly across the street from the IBM Building in Atlanta is pretty neat. Its exterior treatment mimics the styling of the main tower, and when I first saw it, I remember thinking that they must have spent a lot of money on it, all to make it look nice. It’s quite well done, and you could almost drive right past it without realizing what it is.

  • Great, post and thread, I have commented on this at my blog.

    I think there is a bit of a flaw in your thinking when you say that prettying up a regular building is a small percentage compared to prettying up a car park, that’s not necessarily so. The key thing with car parks is efficiency of layout, ie: how many cars can you park and if you have flat structures or parking on one level only you have a massively inefficient use of space, you take up acres of expensive real estate, each extra level, allowing for ramps and stairs, allows you the same number of cars again without using up more land. A big wavy layout with loads of “wedges” between the parking spaces will be expensive because you have to pour all that extra concrete that won’t be used. Likewise if you have roadways that have parking spaces on one side only, you are also wasting space. If you have an efficient layout, you can design an elegant structure,

    here’s one in Germany, looks like it might suffer in efficiency from too many wedges, but is still elegant

  • J S Allison

    As I believe that the discussion here relates to how a parking area is viewed from outside, what happened to burying it?

  • Interesting take on this over at a-musing.

    It occurs to me that one of the great limitations of car parks is that you have to drive into and around them. Wouldn’t it be so much better if you simply parked the car on pallet (there’s probably a better word for this) and then some great machine whisked it away somewhere. That way you might be able to get more cars in less space and would be able to get rid of problems like fumes.

  • Not exactly on point but if you are interrested in parking (and the reality is that urbanism starts with the location of the parking lot) take a look at